When I was a kid sketching our golden retriever on the back of my hand with a permanent marker, Pops chimed in, “Only drunken sailors and Hells Angels bikers get tattoos.”
Back then, there were lots of anchors, bald eagles and Harley “Motor Cycles” etched on manly arms and chests.
As a teenager at Dominican High School, I never saw cruciforms or snakes entwining roses inked on friends. If anyone had tats, they were well hidden since Sister Mary Anastasia did not even tolerate facial hair or short skirts. An inked ankle cupid could have landed the wearer in her detention hall until graduation (or beyond).
The tattooed lady wasn’t the only circus employee who sported skin art. Prisons flourished with tear drop ink often reading “I Love Mom.”
Remember the Marlboro man puffing away with a tattoo on the back of his hand? The Tattoo Man series was launched to overcome public perception that linked the product to femininity. Nothing says “macho” like a guy in a cowboy hat brandishing a cigarette and tattoo. It worked. They increased sales by 5,000% within eight months.
But that bad boy, tough guy, rebellion stigma of tattoos is so yesterday.
Since then, cops, baristas, Congress members, news reporters, teachers, governors, hairdressers, corporate CEOs, lawyers, 60-something-year-olds and rock stars are inked (however The Rolling Stones Mick Jagger reports, “I’ve managed to avoid tattoos so far”). Even Barbie has ink. Clearly, it’s become mainstream.
It is reported that 23% of adult Americans have at least one tattoo. Unlike judgmental attitudes of old, today 70% of us feel fine about our inked sisters and brothers.
How about your best friend? Or even your granny? Would it surprise you to find that your pastor has tattoos? Yeah, me neither.
My former student, Leif, told me, “My body is my canvas.” He was an art major. He had tattoo “sleeves” covering both arms. Just before leaving campus one spring at the end of term, he said he was swearing off getting more. But when he returned that fall, ink decorated his neck. “I just couldn’t help it,” Leif said.
Skin art goes back a few thousand years. Ötzi the Iceman is the earliest known inked person. Dating to around 3400 BCE, his mummified body was discovered in a glacier in 1992 complete with 61 tattoos.
Formerly at home on biceps, chests and shoulders, 21st century tats appear all over the body — fingers, ankles, necks, toes, ears, bald heads and yes, armpits. Any patch of skin will do. Don’t even ask where Rihanna’s Isis tattoo is etched.
While ink is widely accepted, corporate America generally prefers they be covered up. “When you’re trying to close a deal, it’s distracting if the woman across the table has a snake on her cheek that wiggles every time she speaks,” one local businessperson commented.
Even Barry Goldwater had a hand tat.
Old folks jokes about how “Forever 18” inked across a taut smooth stomach is going to look fifty years later. Lyle Tuttle, the father of modern tattooing and owner of the Lyle Tuttle Tattoo & Museum in San Francisco, confirms that tats can change with age just as skin does. The ink can fade, sag, wrinkle or blur. So stay in shape, oh inked ones.
Given their long history, tattoos are never going to go completely out of style. But with so many younger folks getting them who will inevitably age, I wonder if their children, seeing their parents covered in ink, will proclaim, “Count me out. Tattoos are for old people.”